In an industry like food ingredients that is seemingly defined by the need for constant innovation, edible oils might seem to be fairly humdrum. Nothing could be further from the truth. The category of edible oils has been beset by multiple sources of pressure over the years, and the more producers of these ingredients do to meet these challenges, the more those challenges have increased.

While the Book of Ecclesiastes might say there is nothing new under the Sun, even now, oilseed experts are tending to sun-drenched fields of a number of innovative plants that will produce healthier, higher-functioning oils. Some interesting oils are lined up to flow into consumers and food manufacturers’ fryers and cruets. They include naturally developed oils, as well as modified strains of soybean, new strains of rapeseed, doubled ponds of algae—and even some unexpected sources—like tigernuts.

Edible oil experts are covering all bases with new-blend formulae for textures or health; hydrogenated/partially hydrogenated oil (PHO) replacers; new omega oils, such as omega-9s and omega-7s; and nut and vegetable oils and blends. Oils used more as flavorants for dressings and other formulations (more than for cooking and baking) also are included in this category. Examples include sesame (especially toasted sesame, used predominantly as a flavorant for Asian dishes), walnut, hazelnut and macadamia or pistachio oils.

Other big players in food oils have been, of course, corn oil, sunflower oil, olive oil and, to a lesser extent, oils from peanuts, safflower and cottonseed. Also slipping into the market are the growing/emerging/fringe sources of food oil, such as grapeseed (one of the trendiest all-purpose cooking oils of recent years, experiencing recent jumps in sales and popularity, likely due to its similar health and flavor profiles to olive oil), rice bran, argan oil, chia and hemp.

Growth in global consumption of vegetable oils has significantly exceeded population growth, increasing from about 70 million metric tons in 1995 to more than 170 million today, according to USDA statistics provided by Statista Inc. Production roughly has kept pace with this demand, with palm oil showing the most growth to meet manufacturer and consumer needs.

Until 2008, palm oil only slightly edged out soybean oil as the primary edible oil produced, but as of this year, about a third more palm oil is produced than soy. This could be, in part, due to the demand for labeling of trans fats in foods; this pushed product manufacturers to turn to oils that can better mimic the performance of saturated fats, as do tropical oils. Canola oil, from the broccoli relative rapeseed, also has pulled slightly ahead of soy in the same period, having gone from approximately half the amount produced as soy to about 60%.

Palm’s Up

The upsurge in demand for palm oil was a boon for the major palm oil-producing nations, and Malaysia swiftly took the lead. However, Africa and South America have been rapidly expanding their palm oil industries. Still, Malaysia accounts for some $20 billion in sales of palm oil and similar products annually.

With multiple varieties of palm oil available to manufacturers, it is important to distinguish between plain palm oil (also called palm kernel oil) and red palm oil. The palm kernel oil comes from just the seed, while red palm oil comes from the whole “fruit” of the tree. (These walnut-sized fruits grow in huge, beach-ball sized clusters ant the base of the fronds.)

Palm kernel oil is about 80-90% saturated fats, while red palm is only about 40-50% saturated. The smoke point of palm kernel oil is among the highest of food oils, up to 455°F, depending on the level of refinement. Palm oils, especially unrefined palm oils, also have a high resistance to rancidity. In its unrefined solid fat form, it has a melting point similar to cocoa butter at around 95?F. With normal human body temperature just a few degrees above that, it opens the door to creating products with natural melt-in-your-mouth textures.

Red palm oil also has a high smoke point, up to 450°F, but with wider variation due to refinement options. The most visible difference is the deep orange- red color of red palm and a faint flavor likened to carrots.

Good health news has accompanied the palm oil boom in several ways. The most significant is that, following a couple decades of studies, research continues to expand support of the assessment that the saturated fats from tropical plants not only are not harmful, but actually confer some health benefits. Because of the different chemical structure of these saturated fatty acids, their impact on serum cholesterol in healthy persons is likely to be negligible. In fact, palm oil has been shown to decrease the formation of blood clots and keeps them from aggregating on blood vessel walls.

Red palm oil is a great source of omega oils, especially omega-3 and -6, as well as Co-Q10. But red palm oil also is an outstanding source of some of the most powerful antioxidants in nature: carotenoids (predominantly beta-carotene), vitamin E-—especially in its tocotrienol form. Tocotrienols are believed to have up to 400 times the antioxidant activity as their sister molecules, the tocopherol forms.

Research on vitamin E had been raising awareness of its health benefits, in general, but a recent surge of interest in tocotrienols has been uncovering a wealth of benefits. These are not only regarding certain types of cancer prevention but also a promising demonstration of capacity to actually disrupt the growth and development of the aberrant cells that become cancer (and possibly the ability to actually kill fully formed cancer cells).

There’s another palm seed that has a solid history of being a source of solid fats that actually are heathy: the coconut. Along with palm oil, coconut oil was perfectly positioned to take over when it was discovered that the likely culprit in the “saturated fats are bad” party was actually the trans fatty acid group. Coconut (and palm) oils naturally have no significant levels of trans fatty acids.

As with palm oil, coconut oil is an excellent solid fat for processors to use, having smooth texture and high melting point (75?F-80?F) and low rancidity properties. (It is important for all these plant oils to note that some processed versions of these oils can contain trans fats.)

Canola Moves Ahead

When the Canadian producers of rapeseed oil rebranded their primary product as canola oil, they realized the marketing challenges went beyond merely tacking on a new name. Fortunately, the product continues to prove itself as an excellent cooking and baking fat on multiple levels. Today, canola is about the third most consumed oil worldwide.

Canola oil’s seemingly unfortunate name actually derives from the Latin word for turnip, rapa. Like its sister the turnip, the rape plant is in the Brassicaceae family that includes mustard, broccoli, cauliflower, rapini, cabbage, horseradish, cresses and Brussels sprouts. These so-called cruciferous vegetables are well-known sources of concentrated nutrition in the form of powerful anti-cancer compounds beyond their high levels of omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, vitamins (especially A, C, E and K) and minerals (iron, calcium) and fiber.

Before canola, the best-known oil of the Brassicaceae was mustard oil, used for millennia as a medicinal and cosmetic ingredient. Even today, mustard oil is commonly used in India as an ointment and a beauty aid. Mustard oil, however, has a strong taste and, in foods, typically is used sparingly as a flavorant.

One of the most popular canola oils currently on the market is the high-oleic (omega-9) canola oil, developed through selective breeding vs. genetic modification. Ultra-low in saturated fats, it contains up to 80% oleic acid has higher oxidative stability than many other oils, thus lower rancidity and clean performance and flavor results for fried foods. The high antioxidant levels also allow for longer shelflife for packaged products and other finished foods. In formulating, such oils are versatile and suit multiple applications, from deep frying and par-frying, to use in sprays, salad dressings, shortenings, margarines and spreads.

Another advantage of high-oleic oils’ high stability is that its “fry life” can be extended by up to 50% compared to other oils. This translates to lower costs overall, which also impacts the sustainability factor through waste reduction.

Unrefined canola is increasing in popularity, as consumers recognize this format has the greatest health benefit. Moreover, non-GMO canola oil is now widely available, in expeller cold-pressed format that preserves it with a darker gold color and a slightly nutty flavor. Very high in natural vitamin E, it is classified as an “excellent source” of the critical nutrient, as well as providing surprisingly high levels of omega-3 fatty acids.

Soy’s Well

Soy oil also has entered the high-oleic omega-9 arena. According to experts at Qualisoy, for food developers looking to include fats that are in line with dietary guidance, omega-9 oils are the perfect solution to replace saturated fat with unsaturated fatty acids. Qualisoy is an independent, third-party collaboration among industry experts that serves as a resource for information on the latest trait-enhanced soybean oils. The group supports an initiative to “deliver healthier, more functional soybean traits to the food industry.”

The group points out that the FDA decision to remove PHOs from its GRAS status as of June 18, 2018, will have great influence over the food industry. While the initiative to remove trans fats from foods began a decade ago and has seen steady progress, there still are hundreds of processed foods that require the structure of a more solid fat to make their products.

“Choice of oil is important, because the USDA Dietary Guidelines counsel food companies to improve menu items and packaged foods with better nutrition profiles, like limiting saturated fats and keeping trans fats as low as possible,” noted Marilyn Schorin, PhD, RD, in an interview for the United Soybean Board (USB). Considerations Schorin points out for processors to note include that the flavor profile must remain unchanged during reformulation; packaged foods need to remain shelf-stable without using partially hydrogenated oils; and purchasing decisions must fit terms for ROI.

“Look for enhanced oils that offer a nutrition solution without compromising food flavor,” explains Schorin. “For example, high-oleic soybean oil is flavor-neutral, has 0g trans fat and 20%-60% less saturated fat. By reformulating with the oil, consumers can enjoy their favorite fried, sautéed and baked recipes that are more on-par with USDA guidelines—it’s a win-win.”

Trans End

“A real challenge is to find any substitute for PHOs that results in a food product of equal quality and with equal consumer acceptance as the current product using partially hydrogenated oil, regardless of the saturated fat content,” notes Richard Galloway, expert consultant for the United Soybean Board (USB). “The most functional replacement for PHO currently available is either blends of fully hydrogenated oil (but not as a source of added tans fat) with liquid oils and interesterified oil.”

Galloway points out that the FDA requires the ingredient label of “hydrogenated” for either alternative state of hydrogenation, and that consumers also do not distinguish between hydrogenated, fully hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated.

“Consequently, food marketers are reluctant to allow these ingredients to be used,” he says. “The ingredient suppliers, food companies and the FDA need to work together to alleviate this issue.”

For those companies that continue to use PHOs, the high-oleic oils from soybeans, sunflower or canola can provide the best natural stability for replacement without resorting to chemical modification or synthetic additives for enhanced stability. Soy oils that have greater than 70% oleic can effect a 60% reduction in saturated fat in formulation and provide improved stability, without the need for hydrogenation.

Experts at Qualisoy note that, while high-oleic versions of sunflower and canola have been around, too, for many years, high-oleic soybean oil is generating a lot of interest from food companies, in part because of its greater stability. The oxidative stability index (OSI), typically used to compare stability among oils, is higher for high-oleic soy oil compared with high-oleic canola or sunflower oil. High-oleic soybeans also are domestically produced, something important for some food companies.

Another advantage of soy is that it is a nitrogen-fixing crop, requiring minimal added fertilizers. And, as with high-oleic canola, the production and use of high-oleic soy oil has less impact on the environment (even compared to conventional soy) due to the longer life of the oil.

Qualisoy notes that, from a cost perspective, modern seed-breeding technology has enabled development of high-oleic seed products that are very high-yielding, helping to keep the cost of high-oleic soybean oil competitive.

From Stability to Sustainability

Soy itself also benefits from very large, geographically diverse production and, thus, less risk of supply interruptions and price fluctuations based on adverse weather that might affect yields in any given year. Qualisoy projects that 3 billion lb. annually of high-oleic soybean oil will be available within four years, rapidly expanding beyond this threshold in ensuing years.

“High-oleic soybean oil is the crown jewel in high-stability oil development that has been pursued by many oilseeds in recent years,” adds Galloway. “Qualisoy is undertaking third-party functionality testing funded by the USB that compares high-oleic soy with other high-stability liquid oils. While testing is not quite complete, initial indications are that high-oleic soy outperforms all price-competitive oils and approaches the performance of high-oleic sunflower oil, an expensive alternative available in limited supply.”

These comparison tests, along with consumer sensory evaluations of food products, are scheduled to be completed and data published later this year. Galloway notes that “great strides” are being made in the development of interesterified oils as PHO replacements. “Interestingly, interesterifying high-oleic soy has resulted in broadening the functionality of products made with this process,” he adds.

Testing of a high-oleic soybean oil showed an increased shelflife for foods ranging from tortilla chips to mayonnaise, while significantly reducing the saturated fat content in the foods made with current oil ingredients.

The new high-oleic oils also fit with the trend in food to move away from synthetic ingredients. Consumers want to look at an ingredient list and see items of which they are familiar and do not sound too “chemical.” Many large food companies today are removing synthetic antioxidants (e.g., TBHQ, BHA, BHT) out of their products and off their labels. With such high natural antioxidant capacity, high-oleic soy and other oils fit right in. Antioxidants protect oils from oxidation, which can cause off-flavors and rancidity.

It’s not all about frying oil. Ingredient makers have been able to apply the latest technological innovation by developing solutions for solid shortening, margarines and icings. Oil experts create blends that contain no hydrogenated fat and have significantly reduced saturated fat (down to 60%), while they still maintain the plasticity in shortening and spreadibility (such as in margarine products).  In addition, these ingredients act as ready, drop-in replacements for product formulators.

Oils also act as texturants in ingredients, such as chocolates and other confectionary compounds. Recently, ingredient technology opened the door for one industry supplier to create a sunflower oil-based emulsifier that “meets or exceeds the effects of lecithin at vastly reduced dosages.” The ingredient was designed to provide “cost-effective and stable viscosity control of chocolate and compounds – regular or low-fat – without the taste or odor of lecithin.”

These and other new emulsification blends are based on non-GMO vegetable oils and provide for longer shelflife (up to two years in some formulations), with stability at elevated temperatures and a soft, creamy texture. They can be used for reducing the viscosity of, and imparting a stable rheology to, chocolate and compound products. They also are ideal in molding and enrobing applications. In confectionery fat systems with a high amount of liquid oil, these oil-derived emulsifiers will also ensure stability by preventing oil separation.

Growing Trends

Sunflower oil also is a player in the omega 9 trend, with high-oleic varieties being incorporated into various functional blends. One company even has taken a unique approach by creating a functional oil system of high-oleic sunflower oil and EPA/DHA omega-3 oil. It’s designed specifically for food manufacturers seeking to provide heart-healthy, the long-chain omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA in their products. The sunflower-omega 3 blend is produced from identify-preserved, conventionally bred, non-GMO high-oleic sunflower seeds, combined with fish oil and proprietary antioxidants.

Another such blend that has enjoyed success is a recently developed mix of mid-oleic and high-oleic sunflower oil. Designed for frying systems, it caters to consumer health concerns, while providing excellent performance requirements, all while supporting industry sustainability goals.

Supplier researchers note that previous non-GMO options in the market “typically suffered from either poor performance in the fryer, flavor concerns or high cost.” The product has a clean flavor profile that does not interfere with the final flavor of the food and fries with little to no polymerization and minimal gumming.

The future of sustainable oil production could be small. That is, microscopically so. Innovations in sourcing oil from microalgae is in development to provide food oils on a large scale. Microalgae enjoyed recent success as a source of EPA and DHA omega-3s, especially the former. But these oil ingredients are designed for supplements and inclusion in healthful formulations to enhance omega-3 content. Ramping up systems to derive oil in vast amounts from the unicellular algae is the next step.

Oils from seeds such as flax, hemp and chia, too, are scaling up. Currently used more as supplements, and less stable in processing than the commodity oils of soy and canola, these oils also have higher price premiums. But as production increases, costs will come down and their unique lipid profiles could make them suitable for a number of higher-end product applications.

Tigernut oil is derived from the tuber of the Mediterranean Cyperus esculentus sedge plant. The tigernut already is used in snacks, granola, horchata beverages and gluten-free flour.

The oil, first used in Egypt 4,000 years ago, has golden-brown color and, unrefined, has a rich, nutty taste. Extracted by a cold, virgin process, it retains its specific nutritious qualities, including a high-oleic acid content and low acidity, along with high amounts of the tocopherol form of vitamin E.

Tigernut oil has high oxidative capacity, due to the content of polyunsaturated fatty acids and tocopherol. It’s a stable oil with a high smoke point of 415°F-460°F. Extraction is via cold pressing and is an excellent oil for cooking, being more resistant to chemical decomposition at high temperatures. This also means less fat is absorbed into the food, as it creates a crust on the surface during cooking, preventing the oil itself being absorbed into the product.

There is one former “gourmet” oil that has made the leap to large-scale use in food product formulation: avocado oil. Similar to olive oil in its performance, texture and health profile, avocado oil has made its way into chips and crackers to considerable consumer interest.

Boulder Canyon Natural Foods Inc.’s Avocado Oil Canyon Cut and Good Health Inc.’s lines of Kettle Style Avocado Oil potato chips are examples. They serve as ample proof that oil options for processors are expanding and taking into account consumer demands for health and flavor, as well as performance.

Fast Facts:

New Soy on the Block: Pending FDA approval, oil from soybeans enriched in the stearidonic acid (SDA) omega 3 fatty acids could hit the market next year. SDA could be used as a plant-based alternative for fish oil in that the body converts it to EPA, the highly beneficial omega fatty acid found in microalgae and marine sources.

Pass the Butter

Butter and other animal fats, such as duck fat, schmaltz (rendered chicken fat) and lard, have been enjoying a culinary renaissance that hasn’t quite made it to mainstream food product manufacturing, but holds promise. New research into dietary fats reveals they are not as bad for people as once believed and, in fact, for healthy persons, have minimal to zero effect on blood lipids.

Butter, however, is acquiring a healthier halo for being natural and providing satiety—and even having some nutrient benefits, such as small amounts of protein, vitamins A, E and K, plus conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) and butyrate. CLA has demonstrated a capacity, in some studies, to help lower body fat in humans, and butyrate could help counter inflammation, improve gut health and help prevent metabolic shifts that favor the development of obesity.

For processors, the unequaled and inimitable taste of butter, as well as its rich color in finished foods, makes butter a strong option in formulations calling for butter flavor. Plus, there’s always the cachet of a label touting the product has been “made with real butter.”

Who Cares

Controversy surrounding Malaysian palm oil developed over two major aspects of the industry regarding production. Call them “flora” and “fauna.” Foremost was concern over the delicate balance of rainforest land. With only 10% or so of the world’s rainforest remaining intact, Malaysia is one of the last areas on Earth with significant rainforest. Second, of major concern was the destruction of habitat for indigenous rainforest species, including elephants, sun bears, macaques, reptiles and primates, such as the proboscis monkey and especially the endangered orangutan. It’s about the diversity of flora needed to support a diverse fauna.

Processors who think such environmental and sustainability concerns are just a fad should take warning: According to the Consumers Who Care (CWC) survey by sustainability research and consultancy group EcoFocus, more than eight in 10 mainstream consumers say they “take ‘environmental reasons’ into consideration when shopping.” Nearly three quarters said that they are “rethinking the choices they make” and agree “better personal health is a big benefit of an eco-friendly lifestyle.” Nearly half said they even are “willing to change brands for more eco-friendly choices,” a number that has been rising steadily.

According to the survey, these caring consumers “see value in foods and beverages that marry sustainability with health benefits” and some are “choosing their shopping destinations accordingly.”

When it comes to rainforest preservation, six in 10 CWC survey respondents noted it is “extremely/very important to support companies that protect rainforests, coral reefs or other ecological areas.” Three quarters also declared that corporate commitments to protecting wildlife and protecting natural resources are “extremely/very positive purchase influencers.”

Labels “communicating support for local or small farmers” also are “extremely/very important” to about two thirds of CWC grocery shoppers, up from about half just five years ago. For GMO-free ingredients, the relatively new label indicating Non-GMO Project Verified ingredients has seen big gains among CWC grocery shoppers since its introduction, with 56% saying this label is “extremely/very important,” up six points in just one year. (For more about the CWC EcoFocus survey, go to

For the most part, these issues are being addressed. On the flora side, in Malaysia, oil palm is exclusively planted on designated legal agriculture land. A decade ago, Malaysia set aside at least 50% of its total land area under forest cover, pledging to protect it. The nation also established a zero-burn policy. Moreover, there are distinct sustainability advantages to oil palms. They require significantly less land to produce the same amount of oil as other vegetable oil crops and have a 25-to-30-year lifespan. This makes them more environmentally efficient compared to annual crops. Malaysia’s oil palm cultivation also uses integrated pest management practices, such as barn owls to control the rat population.

Malaysia has set aside preserves for animals, including the establishment of the Malaysian Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund (MPOWCF), and specifically provides support and protection for the orangutan population. The MPOWCF is in place to “provide concrete assurances that oil production does not cause deforestation or loss of wildlife and their habitat.”

The industry has adopted comprehensive land-management practices, as well as Good Agricultural Practices to ensure sustainability and reduce the environmental impact and support biodiversity. Good labor practices are also in place to ensure fair trade, labor and education for the more than half a million persons working in the Malaysian palm oil industries.

EVOO Evolution

While it’s been a decade or so since the scandal regarding corruption in the labeling process of extra virgin olive oil hit, fraud still remains rampant. But a number of consumer advocate groups have been fighting the good fight for olive oil veracity. Last spring, the National Consumers League (NCL) released results of testing on a sampling of national brands of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) products. They found that, of 11 products sampled, more than half failed to meet EVOO standards when evaluated by a highly accredited Australian lab. In early January, the consumer group went to four major Washington-area supermarkets and purchased 11 different varieties of olive oil, all labeled “extra virgin.” Of those, six failed to meet International Olive Council (IOC) standards required to be considered extra virgin quality; five were found to be true extra virgin olive oils. Processors should ask for certification of authenticity regarding the status of product when contracting to purchase extra virgin olive oil.

Oil Up

According to data compiled by the international research group Statista Inc., the global production of vegetable oils has seen a steady increase since the beginning of the century, reaching a peak of 170.01 million metric tons in 2013/2014.

In the retail aisles, private labels have been among the leading vendors of cooking and salad oils in the US in 2013. They generated sales amounting to more than $800 million in that year. Organic oils and fats also found their spot in the competitive environment. They are expected to boost sales to $415.3 million by 2017, up from about $300 million in 2011.

In terms of consumption as a food product, vegetable oils are seen as the healthier alternative, as they contain more unsaturated fatty acids than animal fats. A recent survey revealed that olive oil, vegetable oil and pure canola oil are most frequently used in US households for preparing salad or cooking.

Source: Statista Inc. (